In this digital age, your reputation can be tarnished in a matter of seconds. Literally, all of your hopes and dreams can be crushed by one documented indiscretion. If you want to make it in this world, you have to watch your back, and your life on the Internet is no exception.
Your digital footprint is much larger and more permanent than you likely think, and far more people have access to it than you might have ever believed... Including the United States government.
On Monday, August 18, America's newest whistleblower took the time to speak with us about the ways in which government intrusion has the potential to impact the lives of Millennials detrimentally.
In his view, the constitutional rights of all Americans are actively being violated. In order for this to be changed, he contends, American Millennials have to become more engaged in the democratic process, and it's imperative that they became more aware of their right to privacy.
Introducing John Napier Tye... America's Newest Whistleblower
John Napier Tye is not someone you would typically characterize as a rebel or dissident. He loves his country, believes in democracy and is a proud former employee of the State Department.
Tye is also a former Rhodes scholar, and attended Yale Law School. Eventually, he was offered a job at the State Department, and worked there as the section chief for Internet freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2011 to 2014.
Simply put, the guy's résumé is incredibly impressive, if not impeccable. Yet, John Napier Tye is also America's most recent whistleblower.
While the actions of whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden, have produced relatively ambivalent reactions, Tye is redefining what it means to challenge the government.
During his tenure with the State Department, Tye followed the Edward Snowden leaks extremely closely. Throughout that time, he felt that the overall response to the revelations was insufficient. As he puts it:
Part of my job was to help come up with a response to these leaks... I learned early on that the public debate was missing the biggest part of the problem... The debate has focused on collection [of data] that's happening inside the borders of the United States, but that's only a small part of the picture... It would be illegal for me to tell you how much happens outside of the US, but I can say that what happens inside of the US is a small part of the picture... And I think Americans should be far more concerned with what their government is collecting on them abroad.
Executive Order 12333
Thus, when Tye left the State Department in April, 2014, he filed an official whistleblower complaint surrounding Reagan-era Executive Order 12333, known in national security circles as "Twelve-Triple-Three."
He felt strongly that Twelve-Triple-Three violated the rights afforded to Americans by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, particularly in terms of the collection and storage of data obtained by the National Security Agency (NSA) overseas.
Simply put, 12333 allows the government to engage in broad overseas surveillance with barely any congressional or judicial oversight, and this directly impacts American citizens.
Moreover, while the Patriot Act allows the government to collect the meta-data of people's communication records, it does not allow it to record and store content.
The government can see who, where and when someone is called, but it can't collect audio. Twelve-Triple-Three, however, does not provide the same protections to US citizens if the collection occurs abroad.
In essence, 12333 provides an overseas loophole in which the NSA can incidentally collect and store the communication data of American citizens with hardly any accountability.
What's worse, the government doesn't seem to view this practice as wrong, or unconstitutional. Likewise, Tye recounted a statement made by a former colleague of his from the NSA while he was at State:
... I was in a briefing once, and I said something about the NSA 'stealing' communications... And the guy who was briefing me said, 'We don't call it stealing, we call it collection.'
In Tye's view, this practice obviously has enormous potential for misuse. This is particularly true for Millennials, as they utilize numerous apps and services that store data overseas. "All of the apps and online services that Millennials are using are affected by this -- all of them either route or store our data abroad," Tye stated.
He also emphasized that nearly a year after the Snowden leaks, there has been no significant public discussion surrounding 12333, and this is incredibly problematic.
This means that if you use Tinder or Gmail, for example, your information could potentially be accessed by the NSA. To put this into context, Tye notes, "I send a Gmail to you in from Washington DC to you in NYC... That Gmail doesn't just exist in Washington DC and NYC, it's copied to the Gmail servers in 20 countries around the world."
Your information and data are far more accessible than you might believe.
Accordingly, Tye highlights:
Once it [your data] transits outside of the US, or is stored on a server outside of the US... It can be collected under 12333. There's nothing in the executive order that would prevent all of your communications from being collected... When the NSA collects data in a foreign country, it is possible and even likely that they will collect American's data and communications... In theory almost every electronic communication that every American sends to another American within the United States can be collected by the NSA under this authority, outside of our borders, because of how the Internet is designed...
This should be unsettling news for every American. Accordingly, Tye states, all of the services we use every day transmit data outside of the United States, or they are stored outside of the United States in mirror servers.
This includes services like Gmail, Yahoo! mail, Twitter, Apple iMessages, OKCupid and Tinder.
This is precisely why Tye felt compelled to speak out against Twelve-Triple-Three. As he puts it:
This is a big untold story of constitutional violations... It's just creepy to think that government is collecting and storing all of our messages... When people get that creepy feeling, they don't really know what to make of it... But people should listen to that feeling – because each of us needs private space to grow and learn, and share our innermost thoughts with the people we love, somewhere that the government can't see.
In essence, we all have the right to privacy, and we should fight to uphold it when necessary.
John Tye Is Not The New Snowden
In regards to being a whistleblower, however, it's important to note that Tye is not the new Edward Snowden, and he's not on the run. In fact, he paid nearly $13,000 in lawyer fees in order to ensure that he stayed within the boundaries of the law in regards to his actions.
When questioned about Edward Snowden and his actions, Tye was reluctant to express any specific opinions. However, he did say,
As a general matter, it's always possible that any government could pass a law that would require injustice and unconstitutional activities to remain secret... And that's not just the US government, that's any government... And most people would say that if criminal or unconstitutional activity is occurring, it should not remain a secret, whether that's the Chinese government, or the US government or any government...
With that said, Tye is still being very cautious in terms of what he says publicly, and warned me early on in our conversation that he had to be careful about what he said over the phone.
I can't talk about anything that's classified... I could go to prison if I did, so I'll avoid that... If you interpret something I say to sound like I'm talking about secret NSA activities or classified briefings you've misunderstood what I said.
In essence, Tye has been careful not to disclose anything that could be harmful to national security. Through his actions, he simply hoped to reveal a government practice that he feels is unconstitutional and requires fundamental changes.
He believes that the American people have the right to make informed decisions surrounding government surveillance and activities, in order to make sure that their rights aren't violated.
Likewise, he feels strongly that there should be more checks and balances on these activities.
"It's a very intrusive power... Even congress and the courts don't know anything about 12333... None of the mechanisms that we have in place are performing an oversight role."
Millennials And Technology... A Gift And A Curse
Tye's Washington DC-based lawyer, Mark Zaid, also sat in on our call, in order to ensure that he didn't accidentally disclose any classified information.
Zaid was also able to offer advice to future generations of Americans in terms of their online presence. He is an expert on security clearances, and warns young students that their activities in college are incredibly well-documented these days.
Yes, that means your drunk Facebook and Instagram photos can definitely impact your ability to get a job in today's world. Both the government and private companies have images to protect.
Zaid makes a number of fair points. Yes, we all have the right to live our lives in our own way, but it's important to be conscious of the power of information when utilizing the Internet.
Similarly, Tye also advised young people to utilize encryption tools for e-mail and hard drives to protect their privacy in today's intrusive climate, all of which can definitely help to impove one's Internet security.
During our conversation, Tye was also surprisingly existential, candid and insightful. It was immediately clear that it's very important to him that young people, especially, understand the magnitude of 12333.
Likewise, he made an effort to note that the Internet has advanced at an incredibly rapid rate when viewed in the context of human history, and it's impacting millions of people on a daily basis.
Think about it like this... The earth has been here for 4 billion years... And only within the last 10 years has it been possible for a sophisticated actor, like an intelligence agency, to actually collect and store almost every communication between people around the world. We are at a historical moment here, where we have a chance now to decide how this new power will be used in the future... It's actually within human power to collect and store virtually every human communication. That's never happened before in human history... How are we going to handle this new power?
Millennials Are The Future... And The Key To Change
Tye went on to say that there are broader concerns beyond privacy that this generation must also be concerned with. In essence, the institutions of modern life are far too driven by self-interests, rather than a desire to serve the public good.
There needs to be public accountability, it's an essential aspect of the democratic process. This is precisely the sentiment that ultimately inspired Tye to file his whistleblower complaint.
It's no secret that most Millennials are generally apathetic when it comes to the government. In fact, a recent poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics reveals that this generation has historically low trust in government.
When one views some of the practices of the NSA, it's not surprising that many Millennials might feel this way.
Yet, fewer than one-in-four Millennials have said they will "definitely" vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Which seems somewhat oxymoronic. This generation has no faith in current government institutions, yet it also reveals that it does not intend to engage in the process by which it can change them.
Similarly, Tye contends:
Our country is counting on Millennials to engage with government and to make government something that we can believe in. There are definitely reasons to be mistrustful of the government, but there are definitely reasons to be hopeful too. All of us need to identify those seeds of hope, and try to grow them and nurture them to create a government that we are proud of. We are not there yet, and democracy is an ongoing process... But it's a noble process, and it's one that Millennials should be deeply engaged in.
Simply put, if an individual like Tye is willing to risk his reputation and freedom in order to highlight the unconstitutional activities of his former employer, then young people can make the effort to get out and vote.
Discontent without engagement is an extraordinarily contradictory stance towards any issue.
"We need people to speak out," Tye states, "we need young people to say that the warrantless collection of our communications is not okay, and to call on the president to change these policies. He could do it tomorrow, himself, just by changing this executive order."
As Tye notes, the Internet is one of the greatest mediums for change. "The Internet presents a lot of opportunities for organizing and for building political power for people who haven't had it in the past... The coordinated actions of millions of people around the world, even if it's just a few minutes of their time, can change the world."
Likewise, this generation has enormous potential, particularly in terms of its progressive and optimistic worldview. Millennials constitute the largest and most diverse generation in American history, and now make up the largest voting class in the nation. Accordingly, the power to direct the future of this country is in the hands of its young people, but they must first accept the task.
Photos Courtesy: Eric Gottesman